It was captured in living color by the TV cameras — the good and the ugly. We saw it all: class disparity, faltering leadership and a growing disconnect between government and its people.
Hurricane Katrina blew away the cover of the two-tiered society that exists in America — the haves and the have-nots. Katrina did not create the disparity; it simply brought out the reality that, in the richest nation, such poverty exists and is growing.
We say we have come a long way with race relations in our nation. And we have, but the pictures show we have a long way to go. As the cameras panned on the SUVs inching out of New Orleans, it also panned on those left behind. For the most part, they were the poor — children, the elderly and the disabled — who mainly "happened to be black." There are those who say, "They had a choice, to stay or leave." But without money, there is no choice.
One of the most disquieting things Katrina made us realize was a failure in leadership that has left us vulnerable. Many of today's political leaders lack an understanding of the plight of the average person. Many of them grew up without experiencing hardships, so it is difficult for them to anticipate or appreciate a world without. It's called empathy. How compassionate and aware is the government when flood victims, who are fighting for their lives, are told to "log on" to the FEMA Web site where they can fill out an application to get help and then gives out $2,000 debit cards that were later discontinued?
After 9/11 we were led to believe that with the Secretary of Homeland Security reporting directly to the president, there would be clear command and control. Communication would be accurate and direct, and quick action would be taken. Yet, when Katrina hit, no one took "personal responsibility." Everyone up and down the line was referring to policies to avoid making a decision. All were pleading ignorance and hiding behind "legalese." So, where does the "buck stop?"
Katrina showed that we could design any structure to protect our people but, if a leader allows himself to be isolated by people who tell him what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear, the nation is not well served. With the 9/11 and the Katrina disasters, the excuses were the same: the president received faulty and untimely information. Furthermore, the challenging of ideas appears to be discouraged, and those who do so seem to be marginalized. Unfortunately, the stifling of dissent has spilled over into the public arena, where anyone challenging the administration's policies is quickly labeled unpatriotic. Some have forgotten that the framers of our government designed it to allow for dissenters, to make sure it worked. They're called patriots.
It appears the warnings about Katrina underwent bureaucratic turf-protection scrutiny to make sure no prints were left to place responsibility. Immediately afterward, the damage control apparatus swung into high gear with photo ops and press conferences designed to deflect blame and a call for action to make sure "this never happens again." It was the same promise made four years ago and, today, Americans feel more vulnerable and have less trust that government can move. Homeland Security had four years to work with state governments to prepare for disasters, and all it has to show is a fatter bureaucracy. Solutions? More promises and the same solutions from leaders who are afraid to risk another commission and another czar.
If there is any lesson for each of us to learn about the security and well-being of our nation, it is to realize that our patriotic duty is to speak out when we see our government faltering and the weakest among us suffering. The difference in how all Americans instinctively reached out to help those in need and the government's failure to act shows the disconnect between government and its people. If we want to have a government that is as good as its people, it's our patriotic duty to speak out to make sure it is.
Amidst all this chaos and disorganization on the part of government came the tremendous goodwill of the American people. People instinctively reached out to help those in need, regardless of race or income, and to see each other for what we are — human beings struggling to keep our families safe. The nation has seen an outpouring of good will of the American people, and perhaps that is the greatest gift — to see that we have more in common than we have differences, and in the end that will transcend race and socio-economic status.
Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org